Oh yeah, Jefferson High

At least Mayor Potter and superintendent Smith had the courtesy to follow up on the Mayor’s January week in residence at Jefferson High School. The school board — who met at Jefferson that same week, and heard testimony from the same students and same community members about the same issues — seem to have lost interest as soon as the TV trucks packed up and left.

It’s worth taking a look at the progress Potter claims in light of the flier circulated by Jefferson students complaining about cuts to curriculum and lack of academic rigor. These things are not directly within the city government’s power to fix, but the Mayor brought a strong sense of hope and possibility when he moved his office to the school.

According to the Oregonian, Potter announced that the city and TriMet would provide free transit passes to all PPS 6-12 graders. That’s great news, but doesn’t address the inequities Jefferson students face.

It was also announced that “Sam Adams’ office is helping provide instruments and new uniforms to Jefferson’s defunct band program.” But the district has not announced any plans to rebuild the music program at Jefferson. Uniforms and instruments for a defunct band program don’t help Jefferson students.

The Tribune notes that Potter takes credit for having the city “address safety issues at the crosswalk next to Jefferson’s Young Women’s Academy.” In fact, PDOT came out, nearly got hit by a car themselves, said it would be too expensive to fix, and left. Every school day, children continue to risk life and limb crossing that street.

Out of ten actions the mayor claims have happened since his January visit, it is difficult to identify one that actually improves the lot of Jefferson students, or makes Jefferson High more likely to attract the kind of enrollment that could sustain it as a viable neighborhood school.

Of course, the mayor’s people are quick to point out there’s only so much they can do, since they have no direct control over the school board.

So what has the school board done? So far, all we’ve heard about are more cuts to programs. The announced merger of the two main high school academies announced during the mayor’s week in January is evidently proceeding, but there has been no announced progress on any other “proof points” the superintendent’s staff requested in late 2007.

The recently approved budget for the coming school year cuts 4.5 full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions from Jefferson. But due to declining high school enrollment, there are internal shifts of FTE from Jefferson High School to the middle school students at the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Academies. I don’t begrudge the middle schoolers for getting these needed positions — the deserve far better, too — but this means real cuts in excess of 4.5 FTE to an already bare-bones high school curriculum.

It’s up to the school board and superintendent to step up, but so far there’s no evidence that Jefferson’s even on their radar anymore. Perhaps distracted by the PK-8 crisis and the looming facilities bond (already questioned by the Oregonian and Tribune), they’re suffering a little compassion fatigue about Jefferson.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Publishers vs. librarians: PPS chooses publishers

In an unsurprising vote Monday night, the PPS Board of Education moved to spend $1.2 million on middle school history materials, the first such adoption in over 20 years.

I differ with some of my activist cohorts on the degree to which standardization is necessary to ensure equity (I’m pleased the district is moving toward more standardization in general, though I have doubts about the kind of “canned” curriculum we’ve just committed to purchasing). But these differences aside, we can agree that something we’ve dealt with for twenty years, for better or worse, does not constitute a crisis for our middle school students.

Nearly half of our middle school students are in crisis, though. In recent conversations with parents from the Roosevelt, Madison, Jefferson and Grant clusters about the PK-8 conversion, it is clear that the lack of full funding for this transition is causing irreparable harm to an entire cycle of middle schoolers at PPS.

This is the emergency situation that needs the school board’s attention and funding, not the curriculum-in-a-box we just dropped $1.2 million on.

At the top of the list of unfunded operational needs are libraries. The budget, as approved two weeks ago, is short three to five full-time-equivalent (FTE) positions for librarians, and does not provide for appropriate middle school materials in the elementary schools that now must serve middle schoolers.

It also does not provide funding to guarantee computer labs, age-appropriate restroom facilities, lockers or white boards, among other things.

Just to start filling these basic needs, based on documentation provided by the district, would cost around $1.6 million. (It will surely be more, as the district gets a better accounting of the state of all schools.) This does not even begin to address the lack of FTE budget to offer any kind of depth in electives, after school programs or arts education.

To fully address the immediate, critical PK-8 operational funding deficit would probably cost many times this amount (I guestimate $3-6 million, which would still not cover the FTE needed to provide real breadth and depth of curriculum in the smaller PK-8 schools), but we’ve got to start plugging these critical holes now.

When I addressed the school board Monday night, I asked them to postpone the 6-8 social studies curriculum adoption for one year, and instead use this $1.2 million to start closing the gap in PK-8 operational funding.

Nicole Leggett and Michele Schultz have together identified several other sources to fully fund the PK-8 transition:

  • Cap administrative wages for one year. (All non-represented district level and principals etc.) Savings: $1.18 million
  • Reallocate Non-Instructional Personal Professional Services Fund. Savings up to $3.63 million.
  • Reallocate to spend Internal Services Contingency Fund. Savings up to $3 million.
  • Spend from the reserve.

The point is that this constitutes a real emergency for our children. New text books, which we have lived without for 20 years, are not as critical as well-stocked, fully-staffed libraries and age-appropriate facilities.

In board discussion before the vote, it was suggested that adopting this new curriculum and staffing libraries can proceed on separate tracks. But we’re not proceeding with libraries, and we are proceeding with this text book adoption.

There is a real disconnect between the school board and the parents I’ve been conversing with. The board does not have a sense of urgency to get the PK-8 transition right. Carole Smith has assembled a smart, experienced team to plan and implement the transition (two years after it began, but that’s not her fault). But they can only do so much without full funding.

What I suspect is that the board is hedging until they are forced to acknowledge the obvious: those who supported the PK-8 transition are now in a minority on the board, and there is significant doubt as to whether this model can deliver a comprehensive middle school education in a cost-effective manner.

With most PK-8 schools having fewer than 100 middle school students, and the superintendent’s staff acknowledging a need for more like 180-200 students to do it right, it’s clear we’re on a collision course with reality.

As much as I’d like to take that strategic issue head-on, we’re not changing course for the coming school year. Meanwhile we have thousands of middle schoolers who will not have access to libraries, computer labs and age-appropriate restrooms in the coming school year.

It’s time to stop asking the children to pay for the mistakes of adults. Instead of sending $1.2 million to text book publishers, we should be using it to hire the librarians we need, and stock their libraries.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.


Common curriculum and equity

These are the remarks delivered by Chief Joseph parent Peter Campbell to the PPS Board of Education Monday, May 14, 2008. –ed.

The mantra behind the common curriculum adoption has been equity. A legitimate case was presented that schools have inequitable curricular offerings, i.e., “good”/rich schools have better curricular offerings than “bad”/poor schools. The solution? Mandate that every school offer the same books and materials to all students.

While that may seem like a practical solution, it fails to recognize how this solution actually gets implemented. Here are the key sticking points:

  1. A common materials adoption does not address the inequity that lies beneath the surface. Low-income kids wake up poor, go to school poor, and go home poor.
  2. Just because you tell teachers to use these materials does not mean they are going to use them. For example, there’s widespread evidence that the recent elementary literacy adoption — Scott Foresman’s “Reading Street” — is not being implemented in a uniform fashion. Some teachers are using some of it, some are using all of it, and some are using none of it.
  3. The fact that teachers choose not to use common materials is no blemish on teachers. Far from it. Most teachers are highly-trained professionals who exercise their professional judgement in selecting materials that match the needs and interests of the children they are paid to serve. In some cases, the common materials address these needs. But in others, they do not.
  4. Too often, a common materials adoption requires that teachers learn how to implement a program. For example, elementary teachers over this past school year have spent an inordinate amount of time learning how to teach Scott Foresman, not teach reading.

So instead of wasting tax-payer money on a feel-good solution that does nothing to address the underlying inequity, a solution that good teachers know when to use and when to reject and that often forces teachers to waste time learning how to implement a costly and ineffective program, I urge you instead to spend our precious resources on site-based professional development. As countless studies have shown, one of the best ways to address the inequities in curricular offerings is to make sure that teachers are getting the kind of ongoing support and training they need. So there’s uniformity in a commitment to high-quality training and support across the district. But leave it to the teachers and the building principals to figure out how to implement the goals of this professional development. In so doing, you’ll be targeting dollars where you get more bang for the buck instead of wasting money on expensive, canned, one-size-fits all materials that gather dust on the shelves.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

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